What we learned about ourselves during Madison’s transit-oriented development debate.
Over the last couple weeks, it felt like something finally gave in the struggle over density and affordable housing in Madison, like the yearning for a halfway decent urban environment started to overtake the parallel yearning to maintain pockets of pokey suburbia.
The Madison Common Council on January 17 approved, in a 14-5 vote, a new zoning policy that will encourage housing density within a quarter mile of high-volume public transit routes. The “transit-oriented development (TOD) overlay” districts, as they’re called, will not wipe out existing zoning rules or historic protections, but create some leeway for more duplexes and apartment buildings in certain areas. Champions of single-family-home neighborhoods, most vocally from the west side’s University Hill Farms area, opposed the policy and tried (and failed) to water it down by exempting historic districts.
More than almost any other recent moment in local politics, this threw into sharp relief the changing contours of the debate over Madison’s future. Some speakers during the January 17 meeting, including people who own houses in Hill Farms, drew eloquent connections between the explicitly racist redlining practices of the 20th century and the more subtle but equally insidious exclusion wrapped up in arguments about neighborhood aesthetics—and reminded Alders that neighborhood “character” should be about people, not building aesthetics. Some raised concerns that TOD could encourage short-sighted construction in flood-prone areas. Some aired the deranged conservatism that festers under Madison’s patchy progressive veneer, including one diatribe that ended with this verbatim quote: “May the lord protect our right to single-family home ownership.” Some absolutely flew in the face of fact with claims that they had not had a chance to weigh in, or that the proposal was changed in some untoward way (more later about why that’s crap).
Still, nothing touched a nerve in all this quite as much as a column from Cap Times publisher Paul Fanlund, opposing a transit-oriented development policy in the name of defending “the single-family character of our neighborhood, which carries a historical designation” on the west side. Published on January 16 (that’s right, let’s hear it for exclusionary housing practices on MLK Day), this stood as a towering document of blinkered affluent NIMBYism and the special flavor it develops in Madison. It gave the whole debate an inert center of gravity, and the voluminous responses it attracted suggest we are achieving escape velocity from that inertia. By this point everyone in Madison is either engaged in finally discovering the boundless inanity of Paul Fanlund’s columns (if you’re new here, welcome! The water sucks!) or pouring concrete to fly a second, bigger Thin Blue Line flag in their front yard.
The response goes so much further than gleefully dunking on one guy who somehow gets to be boss of a bunch of quite capable journalists. As we have established, so many people in Madison are incredibly smart and committed when it comes to density, transit, and just generally mothballing the old ways of detached houses and driving everywhere. This whole episode was their chance to shine. Dr. Wes Marner, also of Hill Farms, wrote an excellent rebuttal in Isthmus. District 3 Alder Erik Paulson challenged the factual accuracy of Fanlund’s claims and deemed the column “a real clunker.” Nada Elmikashfi stood up for the renters of Hill Farms. And if you skim the quote tweets, it will do your heart good and remind you that plenty of people in Madison are invested in changing our city for the better. Not enough of them hold elected office or enjoy a platform among our embarrassingly out-of-touch commentariat, but we’ll take hope where we can find it.
Do not let one opinion columnist who is bad at his job overshadow the actual reporting others in local media have done around this issue, either. Read Cap Times journalist Allison Garfield’s stories from before and after the Council vote, and Dean Mosiman’s report for the State Journal. They’re thoroughly informative pieces, and don’t rely on alarmist claims about the city taking homeowners’ zoning protections away. (Fanlund links to Garfield’s first story in his column while at the same time guessing aloud that his readers “know little or nothing about” the story and complains that “the communication and public awareness of the magnitude of zoning changes seems pretty lacking.” This seems like a crappy way to treat one’s colleagues, especially when informing the public is ostensibly one’s job.) Fanlund’s column also provoked several letters to the editor, one of which showed the true ugliness at work in the resistance to density.
Let’s talk about the proportions of what people are afraid of. In Fanlund’s column:
Among other changes, the plan would allow developers to tear down single-family homes and replace them with duplexes, including in designated historic districts.
And, later on, Fanlund recalling a community meeting with Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway:
She did assure a questioner that rezoning to permit duplexes on Whitney Way was not part of the plan, but that is no longer true. Before the holidays, a small group of alders ignored a staff recommendation and added designated historic districts to the affected rezoning overlay.
In Garfield’s pre-Council vote story, reporting on a more recent community meeting:
Many residents who spoke against including historic districts in the TOD overlay wished to preserve the neighborhood’s character. One speaker, who didn’t share his name, was met with applause when he said a historic district was “the wrong neighborhood” for these changes.
“I don’t think any of us bought into this neighborhood thinking that the house next to them was going to have a tiny home in the backyard,” the speaker said. “We are unjustly paying for your decisions of adopting this proposal.”
Duplexes on Whitney Way! A tiny home in your neighbor’s backyard! And you have to go on living in the vicinity of it! In the nice house that you have, that in all likelihood you probably bought a good while before Madison housing became so unreasonably expensive, where your property taxes and maintenance costs might go up but the mortgage payments are locked in for 15 or 30 years. I can’t imagine getting worked up over shit like this. But then again, I wasn’t grown in a tank somewhere in the forbidden bowels of Nextdoor headquarters.
The opposition to TOD feels very much like a continuation of downtown business interests’ anti-BRT tantrums in 2021. Both relied heavily on hyperbole and manufactured victimhood. The TOD overlay districts will not bring about the full-on destruction of single-family-home neighborhoods. They will bring about change at the admittedly pretty rapid pace of redevelopment in Madison, but that change would still be modest and overdue given the inarguably dire state of the local housing market.
As quite a few people stressed during last week’s Common Council meeting, this new policy will bring about pretty incremental change. We’re not talking about the city seizing block after block of houses and razing them to build hulking apartment towers (full disclosure: I would be totally fine with that.)
We’re talking about the grievances of busybodies. It’s a relief that the Common Council forged ahead with this policy. Further delay or compromise would have benefitted no one. It would simply have held back necessary change to placate people who want all the advantages of living in a city with the padded stagnancy of living in a gated suburb. That’s never going to happen, and they’ll never be placated.
Not surprisingly, Garfield’s reporting also reveals that some of the people opposing the policy are wildly misinformed. From Garfield’s pre-vote story:
Another resident at the meeting thought the overlay meant the city would buy up single-family properties to convert blocks at a time to new housing complexes.
“In this area, the city does have plans to look for underutilized properties — old commercial strip centers with a surface parking lot up front, vacant sites — where we think affordable housing could be a really good fit,” [City of Madison Planning Division director Heather] Stouder said. “The city has not embarked on any sort of strategy to purchase single-family homes and add units to them.”
(Fanlund, for all his complaints about people not knowing enough about the proposal, didn’t spend any time in his column addressing these misconceptions, by the way.)
In the clash of NIMBYs, YIMBYs, and feckless policymakers, it can be hard for nuanced debate to find a home. It doesn’t help when affluent homeowners use the blanket justifications of historic preservation and “character” to stand in the way of greater density and housing units that we do in fact need to add. Certainly there are valid criticisms to be made of a policy like TOD overlay districts. It will give more leeway to landlords and developers, and as Olivia Williams explained in a 2021 piece for Tone Madison, zoning changes are “no replacement for a meaningful and comprehensive affordable housing strategy.” A plan like this will not succeed unless the city ensures it works in concert with a bunch of other elements of policy, some already in existence and some (one hopes) yet to be crafted.
The problem is not that Fanlund’s column raised objections to the TOD plan itself. It’s that the column doesn’t reckon with the scale and urgency of Madison’s housing shortage and reads as downright dismissive of any responsibility homeowners might have in addressing that. Instead it seems concerned only with the interests of current homeowners and future home-buyers, and spares not a thought for renters who are struggling to hang on in our city. This adds absolutely nothing of substance or value to the conversation. In a publication that calls itself progressive, he’s taking a page from William F. Buckley and standing athwart his lawn yelling stop.
Things around your house might change in a way you don’t like. Property values might fluctuate (and added density probably won’t be the culprit). The history and character, whatever you imagine that to be, might fade in time. It is perfectly reasonable to ask homeowners, especially long-established homeowners who are financially well-off, to accept these risks in the name of density, affordability, diversity, and reduced car dependency. That is an acceptable trade-off for enabling more people to live in Madison while enjoying a higher quality of life. We’ve got too many people in positions of power who aren’t willing to make that trade-off.
The risk to homeowners is nothing compared to the damage renters have had to absorb, all without their consent. The Madison development boom of the last 15 years has happened on the backs of low- and middle-income renters. They have paid higher rents as incomes stagnated, struggled to find housing they can afford, lost key protections at the hands of corrupt Wisconsin legislators, endured crappy conditions with very little recourse, wasted countless hours navigating confusing listings, and packed up and moved during the hottest month of the year every time a landlord decided to price them out or flip a property. During all that, they didn’t have the opportunity to build up equity in a property over the years, and didn’t have much official clout to represent their interests the way homeowners do through neighborhood associations. They helped other people make returns on their investments, and helped other people pay their property taxes. Madison has more rented housing units than owner-occupied housing units, and renters are more likely to be cost-burdened.
This new policy also certainly doesn’t mean all of our Alders are suddenly fully gung-ho about rapidly creating dense, walkable areas all across the city, as nice as that would be. It does show that most Alders realize that our city cannot wait any longer to address its housing shortage. The population is growing, land is finite, and there’s just no practical way to keep ignoring that pressure. Sheer necessity, not an urbanist epiphany, has overruled a specious panic about the desecration of sacred single-family-home neighborhoods. For Madison to truly reap the benefits of the TOD overlay, the Common Council will have to follow through on holding landlords and developers accountable, allocating more funds to support free and affordable housing, and any number of other policy pieces. (One of many annoying, condescending objections to the TOD overlay was that it wouldn’t single-handedly solve our problems, which no one expects any one policy to do. It also won’t stop the Council from creating other policies to tackle related issues.) Alders will need to show a level of spine they have never shown during Madison’s decade-plus shockwave of gentrification.
Fanlund evokes “younger families who bought modest starter homes,” but as Marner points out in his Isthmus piece, those homes barely exist within city limits: “At the time of this writing, a search of Madison’s real estate inventory shows only 14 listings under $200,000, and all are at the edges of the city.” Neighborhoods that were “starter home” hotbeds just a few years ago, like Eken Park and Eastmorland, are now out of reach for a lot of would-be first-time homeowners. Younger families who bought cheap in such areas and still live there are, uh, sitting on a good investment? Don’t feel sorry for them. Especially if they’re the kind of homeowners who make denigrating claims that renters don’t have a commitment to the community.
Another big parallel between this and the “no BRT on State Street” campaign is that it relies on the idea that Rhodes-Conway is jamming policies down our throats on short notice. This is factually untrue. Rhodes-Conway made transit a centerpiece of her 2019 campaign. Satya can often be spotted riding Madison Metro buses (the NIMBY snoots would know this if they ever rode the bus). Transparency, process, and timelines are genuine, pervasive problems in local government and create all sorts of barriers to citizen participation. Fanlund is selectively invoking these issues on behalf of one group (homeowners) that actually has better access to the levers of government than most, just as the anti-BRT crowd did on behalf of another (the business lobby).
Opponents of including historic districts in the new transit-oriented development zone repeatedly complained that earlier versions of the policy did not include historic districts. Again, this is a selective, disingenuous distortion of a routine aspect of policymaking: Legislation changes as different staff recommendations and elected bodies work on it. During last Tuesday’s meeting, at least one public commenter went so far as to call this a “bait and switch,” which was just ridiculous. Planning Division director Heather Stouder explained that after historic districts were added to the proposal, the city gave people additional time and opportunity to discuss those changes. Argue all you want about whether that’s enough, but the people opposing this policy were no more ignored or mowed-over than anyone else in Madison engaged in any policy debate. Even after that explanation, opponents including Ald. Charles Myadze continued to try and slow this down in the name of community engagement. These were not legitimate objections about process. They were at best a feeble excuse for delaying a vote, and at worst a bullshit grab for political leverage.
Fanlund also selectively invokes another grievance that is not new: the influence developers and real-estate interests wield in local politics in order to engage in short-sighted profiteering. “Why would notoriously conservative real estate interests align with a left-leaning mayor?” Fanlund asks. Sir, welcome to the central tension of just about every urban area that elects Democrats in our capitalist reality. “Why consider neighborhood character when there is potential redevelopment profit?” he asks. For context: Companies also build, sell, and finance single-family homes for profit.
As easy as it is to fixate on some of the more wrongheaded commentary, let us pause to appreciate how refreshing last week’s Council vote was. So many of the powers that be in Madison have shown us lately just how woefully unprepared they are to tackle our city’s housing crisis and create a self-respecting urban transportation system. The City of Madison’s Landmarks Commission, for instance, tried to block a housing project and preserve a dumpy office building for reasons that amount to “something something credit unions,” though thankfully this effort has failed on a technicality. You know the fabric of the universe is fraying when Dave Cieslewicz and a Realtors Association lobbyist are even remotely on the right side of an issue. And whatever the issue, no one can dither, water down, delay, study, or lay silly procedural traps like the Common Council. But they got this done, and dealt a severe blow to the power and relevance of backwards, entitled NIMBYs. May further and more decisive blows follow.
Look, I split the rent on a small house on the North Side. The neighborhood consists almost entirely of small single-family homes, many of them beautiful, and it falls within the area the TOD zoning changes would affect. I like the amount of space I get for (relatively) cheap rent, and the area has its share of residential charm. I would part with its “history” and “character” in an instant for more density, more affordable housing, better access to transit, and especially more amenities within walking distance. If I owned this house, I’d still want more neighbors and more stuff to walk to—not because I’m such an enlightened urbanist but because if I’m going to stick around here I want to enjoy it as much as possible. The city’s new TOD policy might help, if only a little. More importantly, it’s a sign that Madison can, at times, actually push past the absurd obstacles between it and a better future.